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Michigan apple growers may lose millions of dollars without migrant workers

Apples are big business in Michigan. As the state's most valuable fruit crop, apples brought in $293 million in 2016, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Great Lakes Region. And as the season winds down, getting the crop off the trees is not easy for the migrant workers who pick them one at a time.

In the Sparta area, north of Grand Rapids, finding migrant workers to clear the orchards is getting increasingly difficult. Most of them have come from Mexico; some are undocumented.

This year, Michigan had roughly 45,000 jobs available for migrant workers, starting with bedding plants in February, vegetable and fruit season starting with asparagus and wrapping up with apples in the fall, and ending with Christmas trees in November, according to a statement from the Michigan Farm Bureau.

While better work opportunities have conspired to lured many young migrant workers away from Michigan agriculture, the Trump administration's immigrant policies have also threatened to shrink the migrant worker pool. The days of having to turn migrant workers away are over, farmers say.

“The border is essentially closed,” said Steffens, a fourth-generation apple farmer. “It’s very difficult for them to get here.”

As promised during his campaign, the Trump administration has toughened immigration enforcement and is proposing new laws that would decrease the number of immigrants. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. targeted for deportation undocumented immigrants who committed crimes, but under Trump, all undocumented immigrants are subject to deportation, Dept. of Homeland Security leaders have said.

This month, the Trump administration released its immigration plans, reiterating the plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico, and to slash federal funding to cities that declare themselves "sanctuaries" for immigrants. Trump has said that any solution to the issue of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the children of undocumented immigrants, must be linked to funding for a border wall along Mexico. 

These moves have caused uncertainty and fear among immigration populations.

Earlier this season Steffens said he scrambled to get workers for his 300 acres. “This year we had zero extra people,” he said. “We had a few new people from blueberries, but there are zero people just showing up.”

For years, labor struggles have been the biggest issue for the apple industry nationwide according to the Virginia-based U.S. Apple Association. 

“It’s really all of labor intensive agricultural that has been struggling with this issue probably for a decade. Think produce, think dairy, think anything that can’t be harvested with a combine," said Diane Kurrle, the associations senior vice president. 

Harvest workers in the apple industry Kurrle said, support on average 2 to 3 other full time jobs year-round. 

"The economic stability of rural communities is really at stake (in the U.S.) also when you think about the domino impact of losing those harvest workers and what that would mean for the community," she said. 

Michigan ranks fifth in the nation for registered migrant and seasonal farm workers, according to the Michigan Apple Committee (MAC). If the U.S. adopts “enforcement-only immigration reform,” it could result in a 61% decline in fruit production because of fewer workers, MAC reports citing data from the Partnership for a New American Economy.

An American Farm Bureau economic study released in 2014 also citing "enforcement only" puts the dollar value of lost production at $7.6-$15.4 billion dollars.

Through a translator, A picker Carlos said, “with the new president it’s getting harder to travel.” Carlos said he is worried about “driver’s licenses (renewal) and being stopped by the police and being deported.”

Once Michigan's apple season is over, Carlos's family will head south to Florida and pick citrus and strawberries. While in Florida, because of the recent hurricanes, Carlos, said there also might be some construction work available.

“They’re skilled,” Steffens said of Carlos and Hernandez. “They pick (the apples) delicately and put it in slowly, all the way in the bag.”

Being skilled at picking means the difference of apples being sold as whole fresh fruit (more money) or being used for juice (less money). 

Steffens agrees that immigration reform is needed, but he is in favor of changes that don't hurt U.S. businesses, the economy or people that want to work. 

"There’s a population that is stuck. They're not criminals, they are contributing to our economy, they want to follow the law but are unable to," he said "They can’t see their families, they can’t travel, but yet are working. But they’re stuck in a system. It’s a shame."

What many Michigan farmers rely on to fill the shrinking migrant worker population is the H-2A visa program, which allows migrants to find work through government agencies that transport them from Mexico to he U.S. 

Of the migrant workers in the state this year, about 6,500 are H-2A workers, said Craig Anderson, of the Michigan Farm Bureau. Nine years ago, there were only 440 in the state. 

Some farmers who have not used the program say the reason they don't is because it is expensive, restrictive and cumbersome. To get H-2A workers farmers have to file the necessary paper work several months in advance, predicting their expected crop and the number of workers needed.

But, Kurrle said, that the program is something many farmers are "grateful" to have access to. "Once the workers arrive I’ve never heard anything but positives about the workers that come through this program.”

The migrant worker shortage that is happening in Michigan is happening throughout the country. In fact, Kurrle said Michigan is probably one of the last states to feel the effects.

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